Show how significantly has Eliot used time in his poem “The Waste Land”?

Show how significantly has Eliot used time in his poem “The Waste Land”?
What novelties of technique do you notice in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Waste_LandAnswer: Eliot, as an inter-war interpreter or experimenter, deals with time in the poem “The Waste Land” as the most significant and instructive thing of the universe and of the human being. Eliot overtly contrasts the glories of the past with the sordidness of the present. He experiments with both the idea of human time and the stream of consciousness.

The time structure of the poem, however, may well be the most significant key to its understanding. The intricate and complex movement within time is achieved by the constant use of citation, allusions, reference and adaptation. The opening line of thepoem places the poem in time; ‘April is the cruelest month’; here, Aril is the now of the poem.

In the epigraph, the speaker says “with my own eyes”, indicating that he is physically present at the event. But he says that he saw `Sibyl’; this describes an event of the past. Time shifts in a numberof directions;

The reader’s present to Eliot’s present (reader’s past)
Eliot’spresent to Petronius’s present (Eliot’spast)
Petronius’s present to the Sibyl’s present (Petronius’s past)

Every human being knows that a given period of cloak-time may appear longer or shorter depending upon the circumstances. A period spent pleasurably is likely to seem to fly, while a period spent painfully is likely to seem endless. In the physical world, any given event occupies a measurable quantity of clock-time, but in the world of mind, time is not measurable; rather, it is relative to events. Experiments with the reproduction of thought patterns necessitate experiments with duration in the human rather than in the cloak sense.


Eliot’s technique in “The Waste Land” consists of the juxtaposition of extreme contemporaneousness with mysticism and religious symbolism derived from the past. The poem abounds with illustrations of the juxtaposing of past and present on many levels. The poem illustrates Eliot’s conception of the past as an active part of the present and his belief that disparate materials drawn from the past may be fused into a new creation which in turn has a validity of its own.

Eliot employs a number of quotations, which is taken from German, French, English and Sanskrit. It serves to universalize, or internationalize the context; that is, the ‘truth’ of the poem transcends time and place. It has its existence in all times and in all places, or, in no time and in no place.

The use of time may provide part of the key to the understanding of the poem. On the superficial level, the poem gives the feeling that time stands still, and there is duration. But the essence of the poem achieves a sense of timelessness. The chanting of `Shantih’ at the Close of the poem indicates that for Eliot ‘peace’ can come only as a dimension of duration. On the literal level, the poem covers a twelve-hour period in a single day. The literal time-changes are indicated in the following lines:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn…
Under the brown fog of a winter noon…
At the violet hour, the evening hour…

But at the same time, this day has a cosmic dimension. The poemillustratesthe concept of the eternal return of the same.The poem also expresses a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay, death, and rebirth— reiterating the theme of eternal return.

Tiresias, the central figure of the poem, is himself a condensed history of man. He has not only seen and experienced the events of the past, but he has also foretold them in the future and already fore suffered them. He provides an aesthetic unity and continuity for the poem in additions to functioning to unify past, present, and future. Tiresias, an “old man with wrinkled female breasts….”, comprehends that the only salvation is death; because, out of death comes rebirth. Death and rebirth constitute a cycle of eternal return, and a cycle of eternal return is a manifestation of the duration of time. Time, then, appears to be at the center of Tiresias’s vision; but, the time he sees is not a chronological time, it is timeless time, a time of indefinite duration.

In the poem “The Waste Land”, `past’ means the present memory-experience’ of a thing past; `future’ means the present expectation or anticipation of a thing future Eliot is concerned with human time in which past and present coexist in a continuum of `now’. The poem dissolves mathematical time and links a universalized complex of ideas derived from western civilization and literature into an immediate datum of the experience of a single person. Thousands of years are telescoped into a single coherent thought flashing through the intelligence of one well-informed man. The speaker is “neither living or dead”, but, suspended between the two. He is “looking into the heart of light ‘, that is, he is at the middle point of the, universe.

James Joyce, Virginia Wolfe, and William Faulkner are the renounced novelists that had dealt with time in its different faces. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, had set the stage for much of the treatment of timeless time. They were concerned with `cloak-time’. But Einstein’s `theory of relativity’ suggests that there is no such thing as absolute time; time is relative. Bergson further suggests that there are two kinds of time; relative time in the mathematicalsense and relative time in the human sense. Eliot has handled time perceiving all the previous ideas of it with its ever-inspiring power and stability.

“The Waste Land” is a poem to reveal the timelessness of time. The movement of the whole poem is psychological rather than chronological. The movement closely resembles the stream of consciousness. Time, as experience, in the poem, shows the quality of flowing. “The Waste Land” is similarly a perfect symbol for the cessation of time for timelessness.

Leave a Reply